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Fashion Anthropologists and Radical Unfashionistas
Artists who put a mirror to the fashion industry—and those who build their own mirrors.
In May of this year we saw the publication of a book by Natasha Degen titled Merchants of Style: Art and Fashion After Warhol. The book offers a much needed reflection on the way in which these two worlds — both largely dominated by the cultural capitals of New York, Paris and London— have, over decades, developed an increasingly symbiotic relationship. Degen’s book shows how this is a story of mutual co-optation, appropriation, critique and, at times, melding to the point where it is hard to determine where the boundaries of either lie.
I have been reading Degen’s book with great interest for a number of reasons. First— and this is an embarrassing admission— it is because I have a lot to learn, as I it is clear to anyone who knows me that I have no fashion sense whatsoever. I admire those who are capable to express themselves through their attire. But mainly my interest lies in understanding what, exactly, has art gained from establishing that dialogue with fashion. Sadly, in my humble and uninformed view (but Degen’s book confirmed it for me), it is a relationship that best exemplifies how art tends to relinquish its integrity when seduced by market forces; this particular case being one where style has triumphed over aesthetic principles. Even in some of the cases where artists have done institutional critique-style projects about the fashion world (famously Tom Sachs’s Prada Toilet from 1997 and Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa from 2005), these are cases where the fashion brand has actively been complicit in giving permission for the pieces as if with a wink, and those works, as Degen points out in the case of Prada Marfa, functioned as “earned media, with every selfie taken in front of it and posted online serving as free marketing for the brand.” Such particular cases aside, it is no secret that some of the most powerful contemporary art collectors in the world are also fashion magnates, that some of the most celebrated contemporary artists are often co-opted by the fashion world to design bags and shoes, and that the art world in general, while hoping to maintain a degree of credibility and autonomy, openly engages in the social choreographies largely inspired by the fashion world in its galas, vernissages and other social events which are so comfortable and expected for the upper crust of donors and collectors. In her book’s epilogue, Degen writes: “When art mixes unabashedly with commerce, it abandons its pretense to autonomy. It becomes the product of market conditions, just like anything else. This appears honest— art’s ideological opposition to commerce has long been vexed— but it forecloses the possibility of authentic meaning in art’s anti-market stance.”
In a broader indicator of how fashion has changed art more than vice versa, it is important to be more aware of the fact that the biennials, gallery and auction weeks, and art fair calendar are our runway shows— the biennial theoretically a more intellectual engagement, while the others are market-based; and these curatorial and discursive debates eventually trickle down to the market in the form of the art that those of us who are insiders tend to dismiss as “derivative”, “amateur”, “commercial” and so forth.
One way to describe this relationship can be to recur to the legendary chiding of the lowly assistant Andrea Sachs by the tyrannical character of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, who tells her that her “lumpy blue sweater” she is wearing, which is “actually cerulean” is nothing but the lowest byproduct of grand fashion ideas that had been given to her from the very top:
However, that blue represents millions of dollars of countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room… from a pile of “stuff.”
Following the fashion simile, museums and biennials produce the proverbial, original cerulean sweater which later becomes processed in a myriad variation by the echelons of the market, from the high-end art fair to the neighborhood gallery.
I don’t write the above to reveal anything new to anyone, but mainly to add that in this environment those who, due to their original way of thinking, being and creating, are able to evade the lure and commodification of the fashion/art complex tend to be much more interesting than those who conform with the never-ending trend of creating new trends.
An example is Emily Spivack— a star writer and artist who contributes to major publications (including a recent regular column for the Style section of the New York Times) and created the Netflix series Worn Stories. I first met Emily via Paola Antonelli, who was then curating the influential exhibition at MoMA in 2017, Items: Is Fashion Modern? One of the only two exhibitions that MoMA has ever done on that subject (being at it is that the museum has never included fashion as part of its collecting focus). Spivack was the perfect artist to engage in what was a larger consideration of the socio-cultural role of dress and fashion today. In 2009, Spivack did a project consisting in searching for used clothing items for sale on Craigslist and selecting them based on the stories that people selling them shared. This merging of clothes and stories was presented through a workshop at the ICA in Philadelphia, but also put Spivack on track to do a multi-year exploration, through a wide range of writing, video and exhibition projects, on this subject. At MoMA, in conjunction with Antonelli’s show, we worked with Spivack to produce a project that she titled An Archive of Everything Worn at MoMA from November 1, 2017 to January 28, 2018. The project consisted in inviting the public to self-describe their attire as they were entering (or exiting) the museum; their responses were fed into a database and projected in the galleries.
As someone who is fond of storytelling and issues around sentimental value, I was immediately taken by Spivack’s work. I see her as an astute anthropologist of fashion as well as a productive destabilizer, which she is able to do by virtue of being hard to place in the rather rigid ecosystem of both the art world and fashion industries.
Because she occupies this interesting place between art and fashion, I wanted to know from her perspective how she saw that ambiguous positioning. She wrote:
I toggle between many worlds in my work – art, fashion, film, writing -- whatever medium makes the most sense for the project I’m working on. For better or worse, that means I’m never fully immersed in one world. I know a little bit across a bunch of fields. I carry whatever knowledge I’ve picked up from one project (for example, writing a book or showing work in a gallery) into the next one (say, making a TV show).
I enjoy having different audiences. Everything Worn was more targeted because it was at MoMA while Worn Stories on Netflix had a mass appeal but they were both explorations of culture through the things we wear every day. I make work that’s accessible, but bring the same criticality to what I do, whether it's at MoMA or on Netflix.
I also asked Spivack about how her work is received by both worlds.
I’m speaking in generalities, but Worn Stories was received with a sense of relief by the fashion world. It was a way to take an industry that can be perceived as high-end, exclusive, and frivolous (Fashion with a capital F) and make it more democratic accessible, and relevant (your favorite jeans). In terms of the art world, I got some great feedback from artists who appreciated the creative mode of storytelling and diversity of subjects one might not typically see on mainstream television.
There also are those artists whose practices are not necessarily reflective or even critical of the rules and structures of clothing, but rather who construct their own rules and structures, be it for the desire to question that very system or because of their own constructed worldview. This type of unconformity is perhaps the hardest to commodify and co-opt.
The two main examples that came to my mind in this regard as I wrote this happen to be Brazilian. First is the case of Flavio de Carvalho (1899-1973) who was both an architect and artist. The artistic legacy of Carvalho is of huge importance for Latin American art (one that I came to recognize shortly after meeting art historian Jorge Schwarz and learning about his appreciation of Carvalho in his landmark 1991 work Las Vanguardias Latinoamericanas). Carvalho was a key exponent of the Brazilian avant-garde, associated with the anthropophagic movement and producer of ambitious, revolutionary and utopian architecture. He was no stranger to controversy, and as early as the 1930s he started conducting a series of “experiences” that are largely been seen today as proto performances. Most importantly for this topic, as part of one of his “experiences” in 1956 he decided to walk down the streets of Sao Paulo wearing a short skirt, blouse and sandals, which caused a sensation. Carvalho’s example, more than a fashion statement, is one of nonconformism, of questioning the status quo of gender presentation. In a way, Carvalho was unfashionably early to conceptual art.
The second, extraordinary, example is the one of Arthur Bispo do Rosário (of whose work the Americas Society in New York recently presented a retrospective of his work, curated by Aimé Iglesias Lukin, Ricardo Resende, and Javier Téllez). Bispo do Rosário (1909- 1989), while practically a contemporary of Carvalho, nonetheless firmly lived in his own world and cultural universe. Generally described as an outsider artist, he had schizophrenia and lived in a psychiatric institution in Rio de Janeiro for 50 years. Mainly, Rosário believed that he had been sent by God to provide a judgment of the world, and his mission on earth was to record every single person he met and produce a detailed record of everything he saw; this he did by creating endless lists of people and things that he would write on objects and sew on banners. Most famous is his Manto da Presentação (Presentation Cloak), which is the garment that he was supposed to wear on Judgment Day.
None of this would likely enter in a history of fashion, but these forays into garment-wearing and disruption/creation of clothing rituals are integral to the cultural fabric (pun intended) of Brazilian art of the 20th century, including the fluidity of categories that I always found most compelling in the works of contemporary artists that Brazil produced.
So we can create, like Bispo, our own accounting of the cases of those artists who broke with the tradition of style in un-co-optable ways— actions that, deliberate or not, prove that commodification is always inevitable. But is it? This is the question that most of us who make art in the 21st century have to confront. If you fail as artist you will fade into oblivion— a straightforward, if sad, fact. If you don’t, you get co-opted by the industry and will be asked to design a line of Nike shoes, and then, as a chief curator I used to work with once said, “it is over”. What to do then? As tempting as it is to continue mining a trend one creates, it is advisable to instead stop and do something else, take a different path down the highway, and leave that impeccable Prada branch behind, abandoned amidst the dust of the desert.
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